The Queen of the Overstatement: A Tribute to Joan Rivers

Just a little more than a year ago I sat nervously at the bar at The David Burke Townhouse on the Upper East Side in New York City enjoying a cocktail after one of my first Bloomingdales Trunk shows. It almost seemed like fate that less than ten feet away sat Joan Rivers, celebrating her 80th birthday with a modest sized group of girlfriends.  After I’d nearly finished my drink, I was sufficiently relaxed enough to finally (nervously) amble over to her party and say hello. I’d never met her in person, but being a vintage jewelry collector, I’ve collected and sold pieces from the Joan Rivers jewelry line for years and was quietly working up the courage to tell her what an admirer I was. I’ve dusted off her designs at flea markets, come upon them amongst vast estate collections and found gems here and there while trolling ebay – they are always excellently crafted and timelessly whimsical. In interviewing factories to produce my own designs, nearly every place I approached on the East Coast said “Joan Rivers is one of our biggest clients.”  I’d heard this so many times I wondered if she wasn’t keeping the entirety of the American Costume jewelry manufacturing industry in business. While most people know her as the Queen of Comedy, she also leaves behind this legacy as a hugely successful costume jewelry designer. Her bold jewelry, much like her, is tough to ignore and always over-the-top.

As I approached her table wearing my own, hot pink bold Kissing Scarab Earrings I’d barely found my voice to start forming the words “Happy Birthday” when she shrieked at me “OH MY GAWD I LOVE YOUR EARRINGS!”  This instantly put me at ease and with that one, introductory phrase I felt I’d already had the fullest in-person experience of Joan Rivers one could possibly hope for.  Before I knew it, I was pulling out jewelry from my traveling box of samples to show her and her table of girlfriends.  As she exclaimed over my Egyptian designs, I offered to give her one of the Egyptian Collar Necklaces as a birthday gift. She simply would not accept it unless I, in turn, took her necklace (the one she was wearing and had by then removed from her neck) in trade.  By the time I left the restaurant we’d swapped for good – I walked out with my Joan Rivers original (above) and somewhere in her massive jewelry collection sits the Candy Shop Vintage necklace she wore at her 80th birthday dinner.

When I got back from that trip to New York my husband and I rented “A Piece of Work” a wonderful and somewhat surprising documentary about Joan Rivers, from her early days on Johnny Carson to her life and career today. The documentary gives you a glimpse into a softer side of her, one you don’t see on stage or on TV as well as outlines some of the grave disappointment (even tragedy) she has suffered personally and professionally.

This ad from the popular 1990’s “Got Milk” campaign, is just everything Joan, style-wise, in a nutshell. The leopard print, the small dog, the big jewelry and the regal posture all with a hint of self-deprecation:

One of the more tender moments of “A Piece of Work” follows along on her annual Thanksgiving in New York City, where she hosts (at a huge, gaudy ornate dining room table) all her friends who have no where else to go on the holiday.  And when they are finished eating, she gets in her limo and literally delivers meals – in person – to various shut-ins and elderly Manhattan residents.  She swoops in, cracks jokes with them and serves them Thanksgiving dinner. Like most great comedians, her unflinching observations of life’s darker side are raw, but injected with the right dose of hilarity – the laughter enables her to cope with real pain.

“A Piece of Work” closely tracks her career ups and downs and hints at her recent television comeback. I think she would have been pleased that her life ended on such a high note, leaving everyone wanting more because even at 81, her death seems premature, as if she were just getting warmed up.